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Tuesday December 15, 2009

Investor who led revolt against Conrad Black dies of heart attack

Christopher Browne pushed for openness at Black's Hollinger International

Christopher Browne, the Wall Street fund manager who sparked a shareholder rebellion against Conrad Black, died Sunday of a heart attack.

A low profile figure on Wall Street, Mr. Browne leapt into prominence in 2003 after his persistent challenges of Lord Black's lavish salaries and perks triggered a shareholder rebellion at his newspaper empire Hollinger International Inc.

Son of an eccentric and successful Wall Street broker who traded stocks for such investment legends as Benjamin Graham and Warren Buffett, Mr. Browne specialized in investing in undervalued companies that he liked to say had been "forgotten" by the herd. One of those stocks was Hollinger, which he believed, after meeting Lord Black in the late 1990s, was destined to be a cash cow. When Hollinger failed to live up to his expectations, Mr. Browne and his analysts began pushing the company to explain increases in lucrative fees to Lord Black and his closest executives.

Friends of Lord Black said that his greatest miscalculation was underestimating the soft-spoken and taciturn Mr. Browne. When the fund manager sent letters requesting meetings to inquire about executive compensation, the newspaper baron privately dismissed the pressure as an "epidemic of shareholder idiocy" and refused to reduce personal payments.

Spurned by Lord Black, Mr. Browne joined forces with other shareholders who stepped up legal and boardroom pressure to hold the company accountable for money siphoned out by its executives.

The revolt trigged an internal investigation that uncovered improper money transfers to Lord Black and his executives. The findings led to Lord Black's ouster and ultimately his criminal fraud conviction.

Mr. Browne never spoke publicly about Lord Black's conviction, and associates said he regarded Hollinger as one of his biggest investment mistakes. In the last few years he has battled health issues. In a statement posted on its website, Tweedy, Browne said Mr. Browne stepped down from his daily involvement earlier this year to be a senior adviser.

"Chris made an immeasurable contribution to our Firm during his 40-year tenure at Tweedy, Browne. We will miss his wit, his charm and loving, warm personality. He will be deeply missed," the company said in a statement.

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